A few days before my husband’s funeral, I asked my friend to drive my four children and me to the cemetery. Rob’s death had come as a tragic surprise. As I groped for security in the darkness of acute grief, I determined how to walk through the events of his burial day. I would visit the cemetery and walk to the plot where he would be buried. I would sit in the sanctuary for the worship service. I’d even wear my new shoes around the house to assure myself I could walk in them without stumbling.
As the car pulled up to the cemetery entrance, I asked my friend to kill the engine. I couldn’t help remembering all the times we’d driven by as a family on the way to a Saturday hike in the mountains. I’d never even thought about this cemetery on the hill. We sat in silence, looking through the gate to the quiet, green field beyond. It was absolutely beautiful, so tranquil, a perfect resting place for my beloved. I breathed in deeply, relaxed my body on the exhale, and closed my eyes for a moment. As the engine roared to life again and the car pulled forward, I thought to myself, I’m glad I’m here. At least now this won’t be a surprise.
There are many times in the last year and a half when I’ve wished I could be so intentional and preemptive in my interaction with grief. But grief isn’t like planning a road trip—you can’t map your route in advance. Instead, the path of sorrow runs helter-skelter through a new landscape shaped by sorrow. Grief is full of surprises.
Grief isn’t like planning a road trip—you can’t map your route in advance.
For Christians, these surprises often prove particularly jarring to our spiritual lives. We’ve accepted the gospel’s warning that to take up our cross is to follow Christ into suffering. We’ve claimed our willingness to share in his death that we might also enjoy the fullness of his life.
As C. S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed, “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
Regardless of this knowledge, when death arrives and grief follows, most of us are surprised. If you serve the church in any capacity, you rub shoulders regularly with people experiencing the confounding nature of loss. Beyond the call to “count it all joy,” how can we help those whose lives are marked by the painful trial of grief?
Your congregation can walk well beside those who mourn, accompanying them through grief’s surprises. Consider these four ways:
1. Acknowledge how much grief hurts.
To lose a loved one is to be blindsided by the depth and breadth of the curse. Death and grief bring us face to face with our frailty, our lack of control, our lineage as children of Adam and Eve. Like our ancient ancestors standing at the edge of Eden, we stand in the cemetery and lament what is past. Dust you are and to dust you will return.
At the grave, past wrongs cannot be righted. Even words of love now fall on silent ears. Death’s finality inflicts searing pain. Just as Adam and Eve gazed at the guarding cherubim and flaming sword, we stand astonished. We never could have imagined the pain of separation could hurt so much.
We never could have imagined the pain of separation could hurt so much.
As we minister to those in pain, our congregations can offer them deep comfort by acknowledging just how deeply the curse cuts into our lives. We live in resurrection reality, but our bodies suffer decay, tragedy befalls, and death wreaks havoc. This world can be a painful place in which to live (Rom. 8:1–23). We offer grace to those who grieve when we lament beside them, when we sit with the pain of their loss and let it hurt as much as it needs to.
2. Accept how long grief lasts.
I’m always struck by the obituaries of elderly women that mention children lost in infancy. I don’t know why it surprises me; I know that grief lasts a lifetime. However long it has been since the last shovelful of dirt covered the casket, grief lingers long. Even if you have other children. Even if you remarry. Even as your life grows around your loss. Grief remembers the love and life that used to be.
Grief lasts a lifetime.
We’re often surprised how long grief lasts, and we mistakenly attribute its continuing presence to a lack of faith. Jesus promises believers life in all its fullness; how could sorrow be a part of that? But if the curse remains until redemption day, so too can we expect grief to last.
The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that the last enemy to be defeated will be death. According to this timetable, our congregations might need to adjust some expectations. Our ministry to the bereaved won’t be seasonal but lifelong, and not niche programs but whole-church ministry. As you walk beside the bereaved in your church, expect to commit for as long as it takes. Finding flourishing after loss may take a lifetime.
3. Admit how hard it can be to find companions.
When you’ve lost a loved one, casseroles and frozen meals show up in stacks. But good, lasting companions can be hard to find. Folks offer platitudes or silence—or, worse, critique; and grieving people discover to their painful surprise how lonely grief can be. Job, that great picture of righteous suffering, calls his companions, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar “miserable comforters,” and for most of my life I agreed (Job 16:2). These three offered consolation like a one-two punch, encouraging Job to cough up the truth about his sinfulness when his life lay around him in shambles.
Who needs friends like that? I thought—until I became a widow. Then, I discovered: I do. I didn’t need perfection. I just needed committed, invested friends.
I didn’t need perfection. I just needed committed, invested friends.
Grief has a painful way of shifting relationships; we call these changes “secondary losses.” It is hard to befriend and support a grieving person, especially for the long haul. Many people find they don’t have the fortitude or interest for the task. The church is often good at disaster response—meal trains, prayer chains, and niche support groups. But we often struggle to befriend grieving people for the many years beyond their loss.
While they wouldn’t win awards for their compassionate discourse, Job’s friends did one thing right: they stuck around. As you minister to grieving people in your congregation, commit to befriending lovingly and imperfectly. Like Job’s friends, you won’t say everything right. You may put your foot in your mouth more than once. But as the depth of your friendship grows, your church’s intentions will shine through. Saying the right thing will become less of a concern. Your congregation’s continued presence will offer a welcome surprise to those who find other relationships grow thin after the death of their loved one.
4. Adore Jesus together.
Grief cuts to the core of our human brokenness. Whether we’ve been faithfully following Jesus for many years or have recently turned in trust toward him, grief exposes the darkness of this world and can shake the bedrock of even the firmest faith. Sometimes we shake our fists in anger at God; other times we sense only his silence. For many, this comes as the most painful surprise of all.
I often hear this refrain in the new podcast I co-host: grieving people cling to the crucified Christ. When the sorrows of this life threaten to overwhelm, his resurrection offers hope. But, perhaps even more powerfully, Jesus’s death reminds us of his intimate understanding and presence with us in suffering. Grieving people see their sorrows when they look at the cross.
As you walk beside grieving people in your congregation, adore Jesus together. Point your church not only to the empty tomb but to the nail-scarred hands. Like the friends on the road to Emmaus, grieve and glorify. Grief hurts deeply and lasts long. It can make us feel isolated from God and from our communities. But grief can also be the tie that binds us to one another and anchors us more closely to the gospel. As together your church looks through tears to Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise.